Reviewed by David Spencer
They fixed it, by God. They fixed it. Oh, frabjous day! Oh, joy of joys!
What's so cool about this? Apart from the fact that it just is?
Well, there are structural principles to writing a musical theatre piece. You can ignore them, but most times at your peril. You can, if you're a master, choose to experiment with form, but most times at expense to popularity and profit-margin. There's nothing wrong with pushing the envelope honorably, though, and indeed, someone had to push it every now and again over the years for what we recognize now as the principles to find their shape. Principles having to do with story arc, three act architecture, a larger-than-life character who drives the story, consistency of tone and focus & etc.
And then this musical comes along that sort of tosses structure principles into a cocked hat. Doesn't ignore them, but uses them in an entirely new way, for all intents and purposes creating new principles, forging a new path to push the craft along a bit further, doing the thing as it has never been done before and in a way that will certainly, somehow, have impact.
Don't believe what they tell you about Spring Awakening's newness and innovation. That's pure hype, and I'll get into that more when it comes time to look at that Broadway transfer properly.
When you discuss innovation, the latest and most vigorously, exhilaratingly demonstrative example of it is this puppy right here. Grey Gardens.
That said: innovation takes work. Following is my original off-Broadway review. After it, I'll tell you of the miracle that has occurred between then and now.
It's wearying and depressing to see a musical that doesn't work because its authors either haven't got a grasp of craft or because their approach is transparently misguided. It's quite another matter, and almost invigorating, really, to see one that sort of brilliantly doesn't work. To borrow a phrase Stephen Sondheim laid on me in a discussion once, many years ago, the wrong turns made by the authors of Grey Gardens are all "conscious mistakes," which is to say the collaborators knew precisely what they were doing and took the risks they intended to take. You can't fault artistry here, or intent, you can only acknowledge the boldness of the often entertaining experiment before you likewise acknowledge that the experiment isn't sufficiently successful. But it does seem to have been worth conducting.
The play is about the "forgotten" Bouviers, those relatives of Jackie O who fell out of social favor and became indigent inhabitants of a condemned mansion, rundown in appearance and overrun by more than half a hundred cats. These are Edith Bouvier and her daughter, Edie Bouvier Beale, whose misfortunes were famously recorded in the documentary film from which the musical derives its name, and upon which it is in part adapted. But before the adaptation comes the first act.
This act is a historical fantasy, an extrapolation from known fact, a postulation that it might have happened this way. Set in 1941, it shows how mother (a brilliantly nuanced Christine Ebersole) and daughter (a charmless but sturdy Sara Gettelfinger) miss their best bid for lasting social connection and wealth, chronicling the events which sabotage—no, which might have sabotaged—Edie's pending marriage to Joseph Kennedy (Matt Cavenaugh). The act's songs waver between period pastiches (Edith was a society chanteuse), which serve as informative social commentary about the times; and book numbers that are both fascinating and dramatically all but static. There really isn't a compelling story going on, just a group of characters and a situation that mingle until things happen, so what the songs wind up doing is serving as little character dossiers, through recollection or statement of personal philosophy. They don't often sing about things that are urgent, they mostly sing about things that are tense, about issues that haven't yet boiled over. This gives act one the sense of —well, of exactly what it dramatizes, a party that never quite starts. Yet within the structure devised by librettist Doug Wright, the songs fall in the right place and serve the proper function, and Michael Korrie's lyrics are properly incisive, layered and intricate. If they have a flaw, it's that they encourage, in use of pattern and motif, composer Scott Frankel's unfortunate penchant to channel Stephen Sondheim. I don't mean Sondhein's influence, almost all of us of the post-mid 70s generations reflect that to some degree; it's unavoidable, since it was his innovations that allow us to explore subject matter as complex and mature as, say, Grey Gardens. No, I mean Sondheim's naked imprimatur: his approach to accompaniment, signature harmonic patterns, motivic repetition of lyrics with minor alterations to build detail and layer meaning; Frankel even gives us what has to have been a conscious, perhaps private-joke quote from "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" in Follies, perfectly echoing its button. The music is lovely, but it distractingly keeps hitting the ear as the best score Steve didn't write. And Bruce Coughlin's highly artful orchestrations sound, commensurately, as if they were ripped from the bowels of Jonathan Tunick. (Other characters who figure into the Act One mix are Edith's gay companion and accompanist [the always-beguiling Bob Stillman], her disapproving father [a not terribly fierce martinet, as assayed by John McMartin; the family's black manservant [Michael Potts]; and two very young Bouvier cousins, [the] Jaqueline and Lee [Sara Hyland and Audrey Twichell].) I'll get back to Act One in a bit.
Act Two is sortakinda the main event, to those who know the documentary, because it is in fact a musicalization of the documentary. In this act, Ms. Ebersole, with equal magnificence, captures the Edie of 1973, a darling of society fallen from grace, dotty, self-deluded, self-absorbed and wearily doting on her mother—played now by Mary Louise Wilson. Without any specific articulation of the concept, the authors just assume you'll get the notion of the subjects talking to unseen filmmakers or visitors (us) and you do. Some of the Act One players have supporting roles here (Matt Cavenaugh is a delivery kid who helps out; Michael Potts plays a groundskeeper who is clearly around out of loyalty—he's the son of the Act One manservant), and the rest (joined by the others when not in their passing roles) occasionally appear as a Greek chorus.
The scenes that are drawn directly from the film without articulated commentary are the most arresting and deeply human. Each number eloquently magnifies the physchological/philosophical states being explored at the moment, and is woven seamlessly into the fabric without the feeling of the documentary pausing for song (though my Sondheim observation still stands: his imprinting on the songwriters' approach remains too present). The Greek chorus stuff seems far less necessary. One number, in the middle of the act, is an ethereal song, meant to evoke ghosts, long gone shadows and the self-called "cat's eye view" of the dilapidated manor...but by the time it's sung, everything it has to tell us is already implicit. (Somewhere along the line, the question has to have been asked, "What do we do with our supporting cast in Act Two?" Most of them, alas, are not required.)
Very arguably, Grey Gardens eschews are some basic ingredients that inform almost all successful musicals: a larger than life main character on a quest, and the notion of something that must be accomplished by a deadline before a "ticking clock" finishes counting down. I say arguably because, in Act One, Beauvier mother and daughter are idiosyncratic and each after a certain kind of validation by society and family—and the pending arrival of unseen guests and what they'll be presented with is, in fact, what everyone is focused on—but that pressure is very much diluted by drawing room dramaturgy. In Act Two, however, it seems that dreams and desires are dead, save for those clung to with a futility borne of rote energy, so there is ONLY the documentary portrait. In musical theatre terms, this provides the most fragile foundation for sustaining any kind of dramatic tension because, like the women of the house, the show can only meander through the day with them. There's no dynamic reason why we're focused on this aspect at this time as opposed to any other; except perhaps to tacitly sustain the illusion of approximating the structure of the original film.
Interestingly, Act Two, for all its sprawl, ultimately holds better than the tighter Act One (both acts, by the way, are impressively staged by director Michael Grieff.) And that's because Act Two has the authenticity of exposed, tragic, human pathology to exploit; whereas Act One's characters seem like musical comedy archetypes; not "standard issue clichˇ" but unambiguous symbols: the society mom, the fashion page daughter, the conservative military dad, the callow politician's son. This too may have been intentional—to suggest that the Bouviers saw themselves as imperviously protected within a neat societal bubble, and to dramatize the bubble at length popping. With Act Two being the consequence. But instead, each act seems drawn from an entirely different artistic (as well as theatrical) sensibility; and more importantly, the women of Act Two seem almost completely unrelated to their younger selves in Act One. It's not merely a discontinuity of fortune Grey Gardens' daring difference of acts gives us—but a discontinuity of behavior, of diction, of speech pattern, of accent. It's as if the authors composed an Act One speculation of events, without working backwards from the real people caught on film to give us an equally possible speculation of the people they might actually have been. The people in Act Two could not have evolved from neat archetypes; and the seeds of their sad fate have to have existed in much more than merely sad turns of events. Pathologies like that go deep.
And yet and yet and yet.
As I say, I don't think the musical Grey Gardens is a blunder. I think it's wildly courageous, and I think that on some level, not just for the authors, but for the craft of musical theatre, it needed to be written. Despite not being altogether successful. Something in its matrix has something important to tell us about new things that are possible. In ways that have yet to reverberate and be made manifest, it stretches the envelope a bit. It goes to a new place.
May we all make such mistakes...
I wish my comments about the revised Broadway transfer were as long and detailed, just for the balance of the read, but the truth is, what happened is really quite simple.
Grief, Wright, Korrie and Frankel took the notes. A long time ago, Stephen Sondheim gave me this caution about musicals in development: "The biggest danger is getting used to things." Which can happen so easily. Even if you're primed not to be defensive or possessive, you get so into following a path, internalizing the gestation of choices, seeing things from the subjective inside, that it takes nearly superhuman will to wrench your mind out of your mind, so you can begin to see where something you thought critical is unnecessary; or something you accepted as a given because it seemed structurally sound in theory is actually hurting you; or where something that would work powerfully for you is hidden behind a false assumption; or where something you were certain you just had to tell the audience is already implicit. No matter your mastery of the principles, no matter how smart you are, the creation of a musical is the solving of puzzles within puzzles.
But when you hit the breakthrough point...ahh, there's nothing like it.
And the breakthroughs for Grey Gardens are these.
They have tightened show; revised some numbers, replaced others, to keep it all to the point.
They have sharpened the focus, so that right from the beginning, you understand the ride you're on. There is a larger-than-life character at the center, it's Edie, and in both acts she wants the same thing, really, escape from her mother's shadow; but the swell hat trick of Grey Gardens is that this carries through as the thread of two different stories, without ever spelling itself out in bold, obvious terms. The authors let you find it; but you do because in the revisions they cannily tell you where to look. And that's what gives the show its motor.
Among the most crucial aids to this is the subtle reshaping of Act One. The dynamic between mother and daughter lands as significantly more idiosyncratic—and young Edie is no longer a miscast character woman in an ingˇnue role. Now she's a deceptive ingˇnue, petite, blonde Erin Davie, who looks and sounds every bit the archetype on the surface, but who uses that surface to conceal genuine eccentricity (truly, the recasting of this part, in tandem with the rewrites that have remolded it, cannot be underestimated). Come the scene where she's begging her beau not to leave, she isn't merely a woman trying to keep her heart from breaking...she's as angry as she is desperate and in the anger dropping her fa¨ade. It makes her more dangerous and Jack not so total a cad as before, and the whole conflict lots more interesting. More still, the eccentricity as a link between mother and daughter—the thing that will exponentially intensify and make Act Two possible—is now palpably felt as not merely a planted seed, but a ticking time bomb. (But I will add, in defense of Ms. Davie's predecessor, Sara Gettelfinger was not to be blamed for being a mismatch to the part; whether her range was miscalculated or her casting was a deliberate experiment that failed, it was her stage persona—in fact, it was her very vital stats type—that was at odds with the role, not her professionalism or artistry.)
Exactly how Grey Gardens will impact the art of the musical remains to be discovered—it'll happen in indirect ways, even abstract ways; not so much in how it will be emulated (for no one smart will, for its thing has already been done), but in the kind of experimentation with form it inspires, in the way it may "sanction" stories for musicalization that might not otherwise have been considered. Something less seen than felt.
A little show, Grey Gardens...but it just made musicals a little bigger...